Meet Michelle Kommer

By McKenzie Schwark
Features Writer

Don’t miss keynote speaker Michelle Kommer at FLOW: The Ladyboss Retreat on March 3-5 at Grand View Lodge in Nisswa, MN! For more information and to register, please visit ladybossmidwest.com/retreat.

 

Michelle Kommer didn’t have a mapped-out career plan, which led her down some interesting twists and turns. She talks with Ladyboss about saying “yes,” why she resents the word balance, and the study of female relationships she’ll be presenting at FLOW.

Tell me a bit about yourself.

I am a North Dakota girl. I called myself the most over-supervised child. We grew up with our parents as educators, so there was always a parent in each of our schools from kindergarten to college. Because our parents were educators, we moved 11 times before graduating high school. I think we had a really unrequited sense of adventure, so when we graduated from college, we all left the country. I had the opportunity to work in D.C. and then in Germany, Spain, Portugal, and Morocco. That really helped me appreciate North Dakota and “home.” I came back to North Dakota, and I was fortunate enough to have a very unintentional but rewarding career. I did not have a map like some people do. I just said yes to a lot of things. I had a lot of opportunities in the Fargo-Moorhead region that were interesting and exciting, and things I didn’t know if I would like or be qualified for. Over the course of 30 years, I have worked for big companies, public companies, legal, HR, operations, finance. At the end of the day, I like to help businesses run more smoothly, and I’ve had a really fun career! I haven’t had a job that I didn’t like, and I have learned something from each one.

You have quite the resume! What has been your most formative role?

Probably my first job back in North Dakota. It was a series of roles. I had the fortune to work for a company called Community First Bank Shares. At the time it was a company that had 21 banks in three states. Over the 11 years that I worked there it grew to 258 banks in 12 states. That experience was so memorable to me because I had a lot of opportunities there that I didn’t “deserve” because of my resume. I didn’t have the experience to justify the next opportunity I was given, but I had a leadership team that was willing to take a chance on a hard worker. I feel so fortunate for that even today. I joke around that I’ve tried to quit HR three times and I keep coming back to it. But it was at that company that I was introduced to HR as a business function. They took a risk on me, and it was extremely rewarding.

What do you do now?

I own a company called High Road Partners. High Road Partners does a few things. First, we’re a full-service insurance brokerage. We specialize in health insurance to individuals and seniors and to employers. We also have a division called our HR solutions division where we provide HR services to companies in the Midwest that don’t have their own HR department. As Commerce Commissioner and Labor Commissioner for the state of North Dakota, I became very familiar with the businesses across North Dakota. I really learned that the heart and soul of North Dakota is small business. Those businesses don’t lack sophistication or smarts or speed, but having an HR professional on staff when you have a small staff just isn’t a good business decision. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have HR needs. If you have one employee, you need HR. We exist to fill that need for small businesses. We offer a team of experts for a fraction of the cost of hiring one HR generalist.

What was your experience like as Commerce Commissioner and Labor Commissioner?

It was a wonderful experience for me. I learned a lot, and it informs a lot of what I do today. Working in the public sector was never on my career map. I never had one in the first place, and I was in the habit of saying yes to things that were interesting or challenging, and that is exactly how I found myself in this role. I got a call one day in 2016 that was an invitation to join Doug Burgum’s cabinet. My brain said, “No, thank you,” but my mouth said, “That sounds fun!” It was difficult, but I have a lot more respect now for our nation’s form of government. It sounds corny, but I mean it sincerely. Democracy is beautiful!

I was coming from the private sector, and I was accustomed to the speed you can have there. One of the challenges I found moving into the public sector was just speed. That speed is not replicated in the public sector. A legislator told me early on, “If good things can happen fast, bad things can happen fast too.” Once he explained that I found a lot more contentment in the pace and a respect for the system.

Were you commuting daily? What was it like to balance that role with your home life in Fargo?

We reached an arrangement that I would stay in Bismarck from Sunday night through Friday through legislative session. Almost immediately I was in Bismarck four or five nights a week and away from my family from January to April. Following that I commuted one or two nights a week depending on what was going on. We got really familiar with that drive! It really didn’t seem like a full three hours after doing it as long as I did. In today’s day and age you can make tremendous use of time in the car. A lot of times I just used it for reflection because there was a lot to reflect on in those four years. It was hard. I wasn’t the only one that sacrificed to do that work; my family made a sacrifice, too. During those four years we saw life events. My oldest daughters graduated from high school. My youngest was nine at the time. When my older two were little, I was in law school, and I didn’t have the opportunity to take them to school or daycare when they were really little. When our youngest came along, I promised I would try to find a way to be the one to take her to school every day. When we brought this up to the kids, I knew my youngest would be the most affected, but the way I knew she understood what we were asking of her was she responded, “That’s okay; I’ll take the bus to school.” That was her way of saying, “I’m on board, and I understand what this means to me.”

I never use the word balance. Balance is a precarious state of imbalance. Trying to achieve integration and wholeness and fulfillment in your professional career and in your personal life as a female executive is very difficult. Your kids will make sacrifices, your spouse will make sacrifices. At the same time I know my children are able to reflect on their growing up and be proud of the example I set for them. My family has been a really important part of all of this.

I think as women especially it’s really important for us to embrace the thing we’re “in” instead of trying to balance these different identities. If I’m in a meeting, I’m in that meeting and not thinking about what happens next or what’s going on tonight. Today might not be the day when I’m a good mom. But I’m not in this on a day-to-day basis. I’m in this for the long haul, and if today wasn’t the day I felt like I won the good mom award then tomorrow I’m putting my focus on that. But that balance thing trips us up, because I don’t think it’s achievable to say “I’m not knocking it out of the park” in every aspect of life.

What will you be presenting on at FLOW?

Since 2012 I have been researching female relationships in the workplace. Understanding female relationships in the workplace has changed my entire life. It has improved my friendships, my relationships with other women, and even my relationships with other men. I’m so excited to talk with the women at FLOW about our relationships in the workplace and why we behave the way we do. I’ve studied this for the last ten years, and I think this conversation is needed now even more than ever because of the state of our world and our nation and our communities. I’m excited to be in a group of women who are there to relax, reflect, and connect, and that’s the essence of the conversation we’ll have!

 

Join keynote speaker Michelle Kommer at FLOW: The Ladyboss Retreat on March 3-5 at Grand View Lodge in Nisswa, MN!  Michelle will present “Women ̶v̶.̶s̶.̶ for Women!” For more information and to register, visit ladybossmidwest.com/retreat.